As car buyers turn to the Web for vehicle research, maintaining a social media presence is becoming more and more important for dealerships.

And results from the fifth annual Digital Air Strike Automotive Social Media Trends Study reinforce this notion.

The study results — which will be covered by Digital Air Strike’s co-founder and chief executive officer Alexi Venneri on Wednesday via webinar — highlight consumer behaviors on social networks, review sites and mobile devices related to the car shopping, buying and service experience.

And as many in the industry already know, the majority of car buyers are turning to the Internet for the bulk of their auto research needs. According to the study, which includes findings from 2,000 car buyers and 2,000 service customers, 75 percent of car buyers and 68 percent of service customers say Internet research, including social media and review sites, was the most helpful medium when picking a dealership to visit.

Further enforcing the importance of a stellar online rep is this stat: The Digital Air Strike survey showed 50 percent of recent car buyers and 69 percent of service customers said they only visited one dealership before buying or getting their vehicle services. In other words, consumers on doing their research online, not in person.

Venneri said, "This year's study reveals that consumers are more engaged than ever before in terms of using social media and review sites as the primary tools to select a dealership. Facebook continues to grow in importance as a go to 'local marketing/advertising' partner for dealerships. Finally, the study provides an indicator of emerging social networks and review sites that are moving from challenger to top tier sites for car shopper/buyer/owner consideration."

The study also delves into the changing consumer expectations of dealerships and their sales service regarding social media presence, online reputation and mobile and digital engagement. The consensus: dealers have to meet customers where they are, and this includes social.

In fact, this marks the third year the study has shown buyers ranking social networks and review sites are more important than dealership websites when trying to select a dealer to visit.

Fifty percent of car buyers listed review sites as the most influential dealership selection tool, while only 16 percent cited the dealership’s website as most influential, which is down 19 percent year-over-year. This goes to show the dealer must look beyond his or her store’s URL to engage customers in the vehicle research process.

And those scores on review sites are getting more and more important. According to the study, 97 percent or service customers and 96 percent of car buyers feel a dealership needs to have at least a four-star rating or higher to have a “good rating.”

Also interesting is car shoppers willingness to travel to a dealership that looks superior on the Web. Digital Air Strike found that 75 percent of car buyers and 63 percent or service customes would travel up to 60 miles to do business at a dealership with good reviews, “stressing the importance of a positive online reputation and how it can in essence expand a dealer's primary market area,” the company said.

As for which review sites are the most important in consumers’ eyes, and came in as the most helpful review sites, following by Google+ and Yelp. Facebook rounded out the top five.

Speaking of Facebook, the study showed that the social media site’s ads continue to gain steam with usage and consumer awareness growing. According to the study results, 66 percent of car buyers, shoppers or owners who have seen a Facebook ad they have clicked on it. This is up 33 percent year-over-year.

Utilizing your dealership’s social media presence to the best of its ability requires dealers to think outside the box when it comes to shopper engagement. For example, advertising vehicle incentives and coupons on social media, which Digital Air Strike explained can be a “big draw.”

The study showed that 45 percent of car buyers and 30 percent of service customers said they would "check-in" at a car dealership on Facebook to take advantage of various promotions. 

To grow their customer bases, attract more shoppers on the Web and keep their current customer-base's interest, dealers and stores' digital experts need to focus on growing their online reputations, with a focus on review sites and innovative, engaging  social media content.

For more tips on how to engage customers through social media, be sure to check out Digital Air Strike's workshop, "Selling Used Cars Social," at the upcoming CPO Forum, part of the upcoming Used Car Week Conferences.